As per the prescripts of capitalist economy, every nation’s economic output moves up or down along a long-term trend, fluctuating in accordance with seasonal patterns, business and financial cycles and random shocks. The economic output and allied information in regard to economic performance are normally captured in terms of numbers arrived at through laid down norms and principles of data collection via research. But of late, what has surprised, if not annoyed many economists and statisticians of India is the deliberate attempt on the part of the government to manipulate and manufacture data to present a false picture of reality, obviously with a view to highlighting how spectacularly it has performed in its tenure. As we know, there are some economic parameters like GDP growth, job creation, index of industrial output (IIP), inflation rate, etc. which are acknowledged as indicators of economic performance. There are accredited institutions comprising experts in the subject who publish the figures of these broader indicators. Now, both the published figures as well as role of such institutions are under question.
Questions raised by eminent economists and statisticians
Visibly enraged over such tampering with the system, 108 economists and social scientists from leading institutions across the globe issued a joint statement on 14 March 2019 asking the government not to hide or fudge the data and figures generated by the established institutions like the Central Statistics Office (CSO) and National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). Since the signatories include academics of different ideological persuasions, and many of them are among the best in the discipline, it would be preposterous to attribute ulterior motives to the statement. They have not argued for or against an economic policy or viewpoint. Rather, the statement has been issued under the fear that the emerging controversies and doubts raised over authenticity of the published figures, suppression of uncomfortable data and undermining access to and integrity of public statistics and institutional independence and integrity of the statistical organisations might lose their gravitas in the future. From this perspective, this statement marks a watershed moment of sorts in India’s economic history.
Economic-political backdrop in which such alleged forgery is taking place
The statement also reiterated the fact that economic statistics have a public good character — their use is non-rival and non-excludable. Such information is necessary for evidence-based policy making and informed discussion in democracies where citizens seek accountability from their government. The use of scientific methods for collection and estimation and their timely dissemination are, therefore, vital public services, as correctly held by informed circles. Hitherto, the practice had been that publicly-funded institutions with professional independence and external oversight would perform these functions so that the data so collected remains insulated from uncalled for political interference. This ideal practice was stipulated in bourgeois democracy which is the political superstructure of capitalism or capitalist economic base. These stipulations were codified and socially and professionally accepted during the rising period of capitalism when it was a progressive force. But with passage of time, following inexorable course of history, it was markedly evident that capitalism was getting obsolete. With obsolescence of capitalism, the process of degeneration of bourgeois democracy had also set in. So, the democratic norms, codes and principles hitherto practised began to erode progressively. Now when capitalism has entered its dying phase, has been ridden with acute insolvable crisis endemic of the system, turned utterly reactionary and become extremely corrupt, increasing rot in the democratic structure is vulgarly manifest. The very phenomenon of either manipulating or suppressing data is part of that rot. Since the capitalist system itself has become rotten and reactionary, the caretakers of this worn-out system cannot but be equally putrefied. So, in order to provide extra lease of life to the decadent moribund capitalist system, they have no other option but to peddle in falsification, manipulation, suppression and distortion of reality. The legitimate commotion over and disapproval of the con game over statistics are to be understood in this backdrop.
What are the allegations?
It has been mentioned in the statement referred to above that “India’s statistical machinery enjoyed a high level of reputation for the integrity of the data it produced on a range of economic and social parameters. It was often criticised for the quality of its estimates, but never were allegations made of political interference influencing decisions and the estimates themselves… but lately …the Indian statistics and the institutions associated with it have however come under a cloud for being influenced and indeed even controlled by political considerations.” It is true. They have referred to the period immediately after independence when the ruling Indian bourgeoisie had to abide by some of the democratic principles and norms including relative autonomy of the various institutions. Otherwise, it would have faced questions from the people still fermenting in the fervour of freedom movement. The growth of India’s vast national statistical infrastructure dates back to its first decade as an independent country. These years had seen the establishment of the office of the Statistical Adviser to the Government, bi-annual National Sample Surveys (NSS), the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), and National Income Committees (that made the estimates similar to GDP measurements). The moving spirit behind these developments was Shri Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, the renowned Indian mathematician and applied statistician. Way back in 1931, he had founded the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) in Kolkata. National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) was established in 1950 under the Ministry of Statistics of the Union Government to act as the nodal agency for planned development of the statistical system. The Central Statistics Office (CSO) was set up as a government agency in 1951 with the declared objective of compilation of National Accounts Statistics (NAS), co-ordination of statistical activities and evolving and maintaining statistical standards. As the aforesaid statement has mentioned, collection and dissemination of statistics by CSO and NSSO hitherto enjoyed credibility. But lately, “the Indian statistics and the institutions associated with it have however come under a cloud for being influenced and indeed even controlled by political considerations”, added the statement.
Row over GDP and job creation figures
The primary concerns of all right-thinking citizens, cited in the statement as well, have been the surging debate around credibility of latest GDP figures which the BJP government has been highlighting to elicit credit of taking the country to new horizon of economic growth, and the BJP government’s refusal to release the results of the latest NSSO survey on employment. As is known to all, in early 2015, the Central Statistical Office (CSO) issued a new GDP series (with the revised base year 2011-12), which showed a significantly faster growth rate for 2011-12 to 2013-14 compared to the earlier series (with base-year 2004-05).For example, in 2013-14, GDP growth under the old methodology was 4.7 per cent. But, under the new methodology, GDP growth shot up to 6.9 per cent (later revised down to 6.4 per cent). Similarly, in 2014-15, growth was revised from a projected 5.5 per cent to 7.4 per cent. These revised estimates baffled many as they did not square with related macro-aggregates. In August 2018, a draft report on the GDP back series was put in the public domain by a committee set up by the National Statistical Commission (NSC). The growth rates shown in NSC report widely differed from that published by CSO. NSC report further indicated that under the new methodology, growth under the erstwhile Congress-led UPA was much higher than that under the current BJP rule. This created a firestorm as the BJP leaders found that it would give a handle to the Congress in the ensuing electoral battle for power. So the BJP government promptly removed the NSC report from its website. Then, the CSO in January last furnished a revised estimate of GDP growth rate for 2016-17, the year of demonetization. This revised rate was found to have magically shot up by 1.1 percentage points to 8.2 per cent, the highest in a decade. Again the informed section of economists and statistics were taken aback as this quantum jump was found incompatible with marshalled evidences. For example, Latha Venkatesh, a business journalist noted that if one were to believe the new numbers, India’s GDP grew 6.7 per cent in 2006-2012 (down from 8.9 per cent in the old series) while growth was 7.3 per cent for 2014-18, then how could loan growth average 20-30 per cent in 2006-12 and only 10 per cent in 2014-18? How could corporate earnings per share grow an average 20-25 per cent in 2006-12 and a mere 4 per cent in 2014-18? (The Print -29 Nov 2018) What she wanted to point out was that even as per the formal indicators acknowledged in bourgeois economy, the quantum jump in GDP growth was weird. Not only such business journalists, echelons in the ruling hierarchy like Arvind Panagariya, NITI Ayog Chairman, Raghuram Rajan, the then RBI Governor and Arvind Subramanian, the then Chief Economic Adviser to the government, had expressed their surprise at the UPA era numbers under the new methodology as well as reservations about the new data. Kaushik Basu, a former chief economist of the World Bank and staunch protagonist of capitalist economy also recently bemoaned the declining credibility of India’s official statistics.
Obviously, in the face of such growing dissents and wide variance in the figures of two competing back series (of the last decade), separately prepared in 2018 by the NSC and CSO respectively, the BJP-government needed some face-saving and damage-control exercise. So, it removed the NSC numbers from the official web site. The CSO numbers were later presented to the public by the NITI Aayog, an advisory body which had hitherto no expertise in statistical data collection. Stating these facts, the aforesaid statement of 108 noted experts rightly observed that “All this has caused great damage to the institutional integrity of the autonomous statistical bodies”.
Suppression of job creation figures
A similar story is now playing out in the fracas over suppression of job creation figures. The count of people being without a job has been on the rise in capitalist India as economic slowdown and slower business expansion activities cast a shadow on employment generation. Let alone job creation, even existing jobs are lost in huge number with every passing day. Vacancies created on account of retirements are extinguished. It is not that such a glaringly anti-labour policy is followed only in the private sector. There is virtual moratorium on fresh recruitment even in the government departments and PSUs including banks. More than 10 per cent of the 3.6 million-strong central government positions are lying vacant for years. In Indian Railways, more than 150,000 security-related positions are vacant since years. Everywhere, appointment of labour on contract and casual basis at a throwaway wage has become the general practice. The government departments, nationalized banks, Post and Telegraph, Ports, Railways— everywhere this highly objectionable practice is going on, often under the sanitized term of ‘outsourcing’ or ‘PPP model’. Though the government agencies earlier used to publish the figures of employment generation or rate of increase/decrease in unemployment, albeit not without a slew of manipulations, those figures never reflected the true picture. Anybody with minimum intelligence knows that the term employment means permanent gainful engagement. But the official figures used to count pseudo-employment (say part-time temporary jobs on contract or self-employment like hawkers or small kirana shop owner) as well as under-employment (the condition in which people in a labour force are employed at less than full-time or regular jobs or at jobs inadequate with respect to their training or economic need) as employment. So, the official figures released did not mirror the objective reality. One would recall that even Pranab Mukherjee, former President, once said in an open meeting that more than half of Indian population was unemployed. But after the BJP rode to power, publication of official figures of employment or rate of unemployment was stopped. Obvious question is why? And the plain and simple answer is the job scenario has become so acute that even all kinds of extensive manipulations and distortions would not be able to cover the festering sore. For 368 posts of peons in UP, over 23 lakh jobseekers including a sizeable number of post-graduates and doctorates had applied. When under public pressure, the Railway authorities were forced to advertise to fill up 90,000 odd vacancies, 2.5 crore applications were received. 18 lakh applications including those from post-graduates and doctorates were received for 5,400 Group D posts in West Bengal. 4600 engineers, and MBAs applied for 14 sweepers’ job in Tamil Nadu assembly. These facts bear eloquent testimony to the harrowing job scenario in the country. Why is it that unemployment is soaring and job loss is mounting? Because, oppressive despotic capitalism cannot create job. Continuous pauperization of common toiling people and working class because of reckless squeezing of their purchasing power for profit maximization of the capitalist owners is creating growing market crisis. More the crisis, more is recession. More is recession, more shutters are downed on existing industries let alone setting up new job-creating industries. This is the cobweb created by capitalism and it itself is enmeshed in this.
Surely, the political managers and apologists of capitalism in the government or its ancillary corridors of power cannot afford to expose this truth before the people. So, they all are engaged in hiding this reality. But, the crisis and job scenario has assumed such an alarming proportion that even old method of customary release of selective carefully constructed employment related statistics is no more proving to be safe for the bourgeois government. All vote-seeking power-greedy bourgeois parties and their leaders have now expertized themselves in hoodwinking people with surfeit of counterfeit promises and gimmicks so as to corner votes and enjoy both pelf and power. The BJP and its government is out-and-out subservient to bourgeois class interest. So both the BJP government and the BJP leaders like Narendra Modi or Amit Shah belong to that category of polluted bourgeois vote politics. They had promised during electioneering in 2014 that if the BJP would come to power, 2 crores of jobs would be created per year. But shortly this bluff was exposed. Moreover, the fact of abolition of substantial jobs at cash-based lower end of economy following demonetization could not be kept hidden. All attempts to befool the countrymen about job creation such as increase in PF accounts, presumption of ipso facto generation of jobs because of claimed spurt in economic growth etc., proved futile. The Prime Minister also took a dig at the opposition by saying that, “Rather than the so-called failure of this government to create jobs, I believe the shortcoming lies in the absence or lack of a streamlined database of jobs.” But fine words butter no parsnips. So, the BJP government finally decided not to publish data on the unemployment rates and creation of new jobs by National Sample Survey Organization, CSO and even by the Labour department of the government. This visibly annoyed Shri PC Mohanan, and Smt. JV Meenakshi, two members of National Statistical Commission (NSC) who had finalized the “First Annual Survey on Employment and Unemployment for the year 2017-18” in the beginning of December 2018. This was the first economy-wide employment survey conducted by NSSO after 2011-12 and was therefore deemed important. It was also likely to reflect job losses in the wake of demonetisation. But when the government refused to make it public lest it should harm the prospect of ruling BJP in the forthcoming elections, these two members of NSC tendered resignation in January last which also created a commotion among all those connected or conversant with such statistical researches. But, to the utter embarrassment of the BJP government, the report was leaked in a section of the media. It was revealed that as per the report, rise in unemployment in 2017-18 was unprecedented. Over and above, data published by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economics (CMIE), another non-government organization of reckoning, showed that the country is facing the highest unemployment rate in the last 45 years, which is contrary to claims of the BJP government about employment generation. CIME report released in January 2019 further showed that unemployment progressively rose during the last four years and nearly 11 million jobs were lost in 2018 after demonetisation.It also came in the media that the Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS) of the NSSO of 2017-18 might be scrapped altogether by the government.
Commendable dissent by responsible dignitaries
In view of all these undesirable developments and reluctance on the part of the government to refrain from either fudging vital statistics or suppressing key data, the wrath and concern expressed by the well-known specialist personalities in a joint statement is totally justified. Indian statistics were “under a cloud for being influenced and indeed even controlled by political considerations …Any statistics that cast an iota of doubt on the achievement of the government seem to get revised or suppressed on the basis of some questionable ideology,” the statement mentioned. The onus of addressing these concerns lay squarely with the government. So far, nothing has been done to assuage the fears which have been articulated unambiguously by the signatories. Instead, the BJP government managed to get a rejoinder issued on 18 March last by a bunch of chartered accountants who so far had never logged their heads with any of the past economic or otherwise any national controversy ever. Countering the allegations and concerns of the 108 economists and social scientists, these chartered accountants comprising, among others, nominees of the BJP government in the various PSU and companies, bluntly defended the BJP government without any concrete evidences in support. They questioned the “political motivations” of the 108 signatories and wanted all “to come together to portray the progress made by India in recent years”. So like doctored data, even support is also manufactured with the help of the pliant groups on the pay-roll by the BJP government. Such is the extent of political bankruptcy of the BJP and its government. Does not this trend smack of fascistic move? Publication of administrative data is credible only when it is complemented by rigorous independent studies and evaluations free from undue political interference and ulterior motive of distorting reality for buttressing vested interest. Otherwise, by all the so called data-driven speeches and publicity on the part of the government, the citizens are none the wiser about their government’s performance. Rather they are misled and cheated. It is here that the civil society, the socially responsible erudite and professionals need to play a critical role by demystifying and communicating data, thus empowering citizens with relevant information. From this perspective of discharging due social obligation, the statement by 108 dignitaries deserves appreciation. It is also an eye-opener for the people at large as to how they are taken for a ride by the dishonest corrupt bourgeois parties and politicians. Time has come to rise against such bourgeois deceptions and rally behind forces who are seriously and sincerely engaged in their struggle against this oppressive depraved capitalist order and its bootlickers of different hues.